It is lunchtime at St. Anne Catholic School in Kanata, Ont., and a squabble is under way at a hockey net in the playground. Hannah Gartland, 10, and Sarah Cousineau and Nick Kidd, both 11, march over, a mini riot squad in their bright yellow vests that read "Peer Mediator." The Grade 1 boys, immersed in bickering over who should get to play goal, stop immediately and spill their sides of the story. "How about every goal, you guys switch," Nick suggests. "You can be defence," Sarah tells one boy. "Does that sound fair?" Problem solved, a little grudgingly. "Great," Hannah says cheerfully. "Have a good game." The three walk off, alert to more playground mayhem.
Not really a case of bullying, explains Nick, cool and confident in his backward baseball cap, but he has seen these disputes grow into fistfights, especially among the older kids. "It's always best to start with a little problem so it doesn't get bigger," Sarah says.
The idea that starting young might reduce teenaged locker-room brutality and cyber-harassment is behind St. Anne's anti-bullying program. It's the kind of comprehensive, well-supported, community-based approach that research has shown to be most effective. Indeed, principal Jane Hill credits the program with bringing down bullying incidents - but most schools in Canada are failing to curb the problem. There are many reasons for this, not the least of them the fact that educators have tried to simplify a complex social issue down to good guys and bad guys, hoping positive language will seep into playground politics, and that zero tolerance will scare bullies straight. Schools have too often failed to act in the most serious cases, and kids won't tell on bullies if they don't believe it will make a difference.
When left unchecked, bullies can destroy lives, as in the recent spate of U.S. suicides related to homophobic bullying that prompted President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to speak out, expressing their sadness, shock and support for the victims of bullies.
Eliminating bullying altogether is an unrealistic goal. It's human nature: People like to boss other people around and it's not hard to see traits of a control-seeking bully in parents who rant viciously at hockey games.
"Some parents, I am sad to say, are not at all bothered if their child is a bully. In fact, they can be quite proud of it," explains Ken Rigby, a bullying expert in Australia.
The view lingers that getting picked on is a teenage rite of passage: When bullying leads to suicide, the outrage is swift, but, as Guelph high-school student Alix Vander Vlugt asks, "Where's the outrage for everything that happened leading up to that?"
Most kids grow out of bullying by the time they reach their mid-teens.
Research consistently shows that bullying is linked to depression, poor school performance and anxiety, for both victim and perpetrator. The worst offenders are cleverly covert, often the popular kids in class.
They're the ones teachers like and parents don't suspect, and they use their social capital to cow bystanders into staying quiet, or joining in.
A Grade 8 student interviewed for this story, who didn't want to be named, described this very type: a former friend who would order her posse to go up to other students and call them names, or generally intimidate them. "I felt that if I went against her, I wouldn't have friends. Looking back, I definitely should have told a teacher." Alix Vander Vlugt, who now speaks out against bullying, recalls watching his peers torment younger students. "I usually didn't say anything."
Many bullies are also victims themselves. And while the constantly terrorized victim merits the strongest intervention, a second worrisome group are the kids pushed into nasty behaviour they know is wrong because they fear the consequences of not playing along. "You cannot wait until a child is 15," Dr. Rigby says. "They are doing real damage."
Schools can post warm and fuzzy messages about tolerance in the hallways, and hand out good-citizen awards at assemblies - both well-meaning, and necessary - but that strategy speaks loudest to students who wouldn't bully in the first place, and many of those who do (between 10 and 20 per cent) don't necessarily see their behaviour that way.